The landscape is arid. The temperature a balmy 85. Urban sprawl, in the form of decades old and typically bland, high rise apartment buildings, spreads across the rolling hills surrounding the “old town”. But Split, set halfway up the Dalmatian Coast, is anything but typical. Like many other cities in Croatia, the term “old town” is a bit of an understatement, with buildings dating back thousands of years. One of the country’s seven UNESCO World Heritage sites, the Historical Complex (with the Palace of Diocletian) sits directly on the Adriatic Sea, with a postcard perfect view of islands surrounded by calm, clean, turquoise water in the distance. The Splitska Riva, a palm tree lined coastal walk fronting the white stone ancient town, is packed with vacationers sipping cocktails, licking cones stacked with gelato and strolling hand-in-hand.
It’s a little like Central Europe, with a bit of Eastern Europe and a dash of Mediterranean, all rolled up in one. Strangely familiar in the narrow streets and pizzerias, the white hillside buildings and sparkling blue water. Yet also delightfully foreign with its noticeably Slavic influence, uniquely established culture and language. Following the war of Independence that ended in 1995, tourism in Croatia has skyrocketed. In summer months, visitors from all over Europe flock to the spectacular island drenched coastline to swim, boat, and lay in the sun. It’s easy to understand the allure. Within hours of arriving we find ourselves wondering why more Americans don’t include this awe inspiring place in their European vacation.
Exploring the ancient city of Split is an experience in itself. Roman, medieval, and renaissance buildings vary in age but share a similar look of uniformed white stone, each topped with ceramic red tiles. The streets in the old town wind in a complex web from the center where tall columns connect the archways of Diocletian's Palace, built for the Emperor in 305 AD. At the northern wall outside the bronze gate, stands a tall statue of Grgur Ninski. Adored by Croats, he was the first Bishop to use the Croat language in religion. The left big toe at the bottom of his massive likeness is gold from years of locals and visitors alike who’ve rubbed it in hopes of finding good luck. The narrow stone streets, slippery with age, are lined with souvenir shops selling products such as olive oil, grappa, and lavender, all benefits of the Mediterranean climate.
It’s August and summer is in full swing. We’ve seen photos of the Croatian coastline and, having been landlocked for far too long, are anxious for some beach time. In search of a place the locals go we walk past the harbor, down the seaside riva to the base of Marjan Hill. Swimsuit and sunscreen clad families and teens walk ahead along a skinny sidewalk on the ocean’s edge. A sharp corner unveils a steep forested hillside with smooth rocks near the ocean. Every section of the shoreline is covered with bronzed bodies, beers, card games, and beach towels. Further along, teenagers leap from the highest rocks into the ocean, egging one another on to go higher and higher with each jump. Metal staircases line the pathway, making for easy transitions from jumping to swimming, then back to jumping. We arrive at a Jezinac Beach, stony and with a roped off area for swimming and a small wood bridge to a rocky outcrop.
Having lived in Hawaii, we’re astounded by the ocean conditions, or lack thereof. The water is not only clean and clear, but also lake-like calm; the only “waves” are formed by the wake of a nearby speedboat. We lay out the $3 sarong we picked up at a market in Cambodia and spend the next couple hours swimming, laying in the sun and watching the local teenagers test their courage with flips and tricks off the highest cliffs. It’s our first day here, and we decide that the only option is to “do as the locals do” and jump into Croatia head first. We’ve quickly found a new hobby, becoming addicted to the adrenaline rush of plummeting into the ocean with every jump. Walking home, as the sky turns a brilliant orange, we decide that cliff jumping in Croatia is a world tour highlight and wonder how it’s not included in every guidebook.
One of the many reasons Croatia draws so many visitors during the summer is it's incredible coastline. In addition to the clear and calm ocean water, the country is home to over 1,000 islands, making it ideal for boating and exploring. The largest island in the country, Brac, is an easy 50 minute ferry ride from Split (ferries run every hour until 10:45pm). In true Ryan & Megan fashion, we barely make the noon ferry, running onto the boat literally seconds before it pulls out of the harbor. Upon our arrival we catch a bus to Bol, a small town on the island’s southern coastline. We’re in search of the island’s most famed beach, called Zlatni Rat, that sits on a narrow peninsula with water on three sides. Winding through groves of olive trees on switchback roads, we finally reach the opposite shore. The beach is everything we expected and more, surrounded by shady pine forests and with enough people to feel energized but not too many to ruin the experience. We plan to take the 6pm bus back to the ferry but end up staying for sunset, unable to peel ourselves off the ground.
With a little over two weeks in Croatia, we plan to slowly work our way up the coastline, stopping in five ancient cities along the way. Even at the beginning of our trip, we are 100% positive that our two weeks is far too little, and are already planning our trip back.